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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

08:01:38 pm , 3026 words, 1782 views     Categories: Movie, Live-action, Foreign

VIFF 2010 thoughts part 2

Chassis (Philippines, 2010, 75 min, Adolfo Alix, Jr.)

This is another instance of the trend in recent independent Asian cinema to adopt cinema verite/documentary style and to diffuse the narrative. This film was overall disappointing, but was redeemed by offering a glimpse into a way of life that I never knew existed. Apparently there are entire families of poor in the Philippines who because they can't afford housing, but do own their own semi tractor, live by the dockyards under their trucks between shifts, struggling to make ends meet in terrible conditions, right there in the middle of all the trucks in the parking lot. It's as shocking to watch as it sounds. This film follows the travails of one such family, consisting of a mother and child and the husband, who operates the rig.

Philippines is the home of Smokey Mountain, the euphemistically titled garbage dump on the outskirts of Manila that was once one of the largest slums in Asia. After it was closed down by the government in 1995, many of the thousands of families who lived there moved to another nearby dump in Quezon called Smokey Valley, which is where Hiroshi Shinomiya shot the 2002 film God's Children, which follows the life of several of the families who live in the dump in the aftermath of a storm that caused garbage avalanches that killed hundreds of the inhabitants. Even in a nightmare you couldn't conjure up the sort of images that these people experience on a daily basis. Even today some 50% of the 11 million inhabitants of Manila inhabit the slum areas.

Chassis thus continues in the tradition of God's Children by casting light on the vast poor population of the Philippines. The film does not provide much background material, leaving you wondering, is this based on fact, how many people in the Philippines live like this, where, etc. It's furthermore shot in a very low-budget way. Many of the scenes are shot at night and it is actually hard to see anything. The pacing is languid to the point of being tedious sometimes. The story is rudimentary, following the wife around as she does her best to make life for her daughter bearable, which includes prostituting herself to the corrupt lot guardsmen. In the shadow of all the horror, she spends much of the film creating an angel costume for her child, so that the little girl can participate in the school play she's so excited about. This leads to a tragic conclusion that in retrospect you can see coming from a mile away. The climax in particular is blunt and gory and sudden, the ending abrupt and dissatisfying. Too little thought obviously went into the planning of the film. The situation is inherently tragic enough, I felt, that facile manipulation of this kind was not necessary to achieve its impact. But it's true that the conclusion packs a certain painful irony, because the very livelihood that keeps the family alive winds up tearing it apart.

That said, whatever flaws the film may have, as unpolished and imperfect as it may be, it's impossible to dismiss it outright. Its documentary gaze on the life of these people is compelling and obviously truthful. The narrative is appealingly subservient to documentation of life. In other words, the film isn't story-driven as much as a story tells itself by following the day-to-day life of this family. Although fiction, it's clear that the fragments of which the fiction is built are true. The woman may be a character, but you can easily imagine the faceless many she represents. It just takes a viewing of Hiroshi Shinomiya's film to show you that there are many, many more, living in far more desperate conditions than you could have imaged. The woman in this film has it easy in comparison, and her life is tragic and heartbreaking enough as it is.

The Drunkard (Hong Kong, 2010, 106 min, Freddie Wong)

Imagine the sleek, neon visuals and dreamy, otherworldly atmosphere of 2046, but set in real-life Hong Kong in the 1960s, and you will get a sense of Freddie Wong's debut feature. We follow the life of a dissolute writer in his 50s, whose drunkenness is an outwards manifestation of a deep dread and disillusionment with the Hong Kong of his day. Once a writer of high-minded literature, he abandons his aspirations and his colleagues to write porn and kung-fu serials, but this isn't enough to staunch the emotional hemorrhaging.

Freddie Wong is no greenhorn film student. He's one of Hong Kong's leading movie figures, in his 40s or 50s (haven't been able to find his age), curator of the HK International Film Festival, and I believe also a writer or scriptwriter, I don't remember clearly. He was there to answer questions after the screening, and came across as endearingly enthusiastic and eager about the whole enterprise. The film was clearly a labor of love for him, and it shows. The film is based on one of Hong Kong's most well-known and loved works of literature from mid-century. After the screening, Freddie Wong explained that the book's fame came party from its erudition and its modernity, as well as its sharp and on-the-mark intellectual discussions of literature foreign and domestic that, even read today, come across as prescient and informed. He was forced to excise much of this for obvious reasons, altering the impression of the book. In the book, much more space was devoted to showing the protagonist's erudition and knowledge of literature. Most of this was cut, which alters our impression considerably. I personally found that the film worked at what it was trying to do. As literary adaptations go, it seems pretty passable to me. I'm curious to know what readers of the original book think of the film. (obviously "the book was better", right?)

The film does a good job of conveying the atmosphere of the book without drowning the audience in excessive narration. That is one of the pitfalls of literary adaptation. Too often films fall into the trap of narrating the book instead of translating the words into visuals. Freddie Wong did a great job of achieving a middle ground. I didn't know the movie was a literary adaptation while I was watching it, and it didn't feel like it was.

The movie's protagonist is actually a pretty unsavory and unappealing character, selfish, narcissistic, his relationships with women always seeming to find a way of ending badly, and you wonder what it is that drives him to drink and to act like such a prick, but you never hate him, which I guess is an accomplishment. You even feel like you understand, somehow, which I think is more testament to the power of cinema than anything. Somehow the magic of cinema transforms the most heinous monsters into rock stars by the magic of celluloid.

The visuals are sleek and extremely accomplished, the pacing excellent and never boring. In the Mood for Love fanboys (like me) will enjoy the film's amazing array of China-doll 'cheongsam' body-fitting dresses on display on the sultry beauties. Every scene features a new one, and the scenes are shot with unflagging style and verve. Low-budget indie feature this was not, as apparently it was the most expensive indie feature ever shot in Hong Kong. I'm guessing it's all those dresses that blew the budget, but man was it worth it! Almost all of the film was shot indoors for budget reasons, so it's pretty remarkable how much of a good job they do of bringing alive the atmosphere of 60s Hong Kong entirely through the acting, dresses, interiors, and the little details of the paraphernalia of everyday life. This film is like a velvet bathrobe, a Habano and a bottle of Courvoisier XO.

Certified Copy (France/Italy/Belgium, 2010, 106 min, Abbas Kiarostami)

One of my favorite films from the festival, unsurprisingly, was this conceptually satisfying, ingenious, mischievous puzzle of a film. Kiarostami is a bit unpredictable a director. After directing ABC Africa, a digital documentary about the AIDS crisis in Uganda, he directs Five, a film consisting of five long shots of natural scenery, then later on he directs Shirin, a film consisting entirely of close-ups of people's faces as they're watching a film. And now he throws us the ultimate curve-ball of this highly enjoyable and approachable arthouse-flick-cum-rom-com starring French darling Juliette Binoche.

Certified Copy is just as conceptually rigorous and intellectually playful a film as everything he's done before, such as Taste of Cherry, shot almost entirely from the passenger and driver seat of a car. But in this case the healthy stuff is hidden in a huge mound of whipped cream consisting of Juliette Binoche and the beautiful Italian countryside. Extras come and go, but the bulk of the film consists of dialogue between the two characters. The dialogue is almost non-stop, making this very much of a script-driven film. Kiarostami, as usual, makes up for this by having them constantly moving from one location to another, so it's not like My Dinner With Andre, which occurs entirely in one location, but rather is quite colorful and with a lot of interesting props and locations for the characters to interact with and to enrich the narrative with meaning. Not to mention making it quite easy to watch.

It's unfortunate that it would ruin the impact of the film to give away its driving conceit, and I liked the film too much to ruin it by describing it in detail, as much as I would like to. This is one of those films where the locus of interest is in the ingenious mechanism operated by the director, who performs an amazing feat of dramaturgical wizardry by playing with the concept of character, gradually transforming what at first appears to be a linear narrative but which, much to your bafflement and amazement as you become aware of the trick being foisted upon you by and by, has gradually shifted into something very different. This ingenious process of meta-shifting of character timelines makes for one of the most creative examinations of the evolution of relationships that I've ever seen put to film - from first meeting through the comfortable middle years through in the end to the years of disillusionment and ultimately parting.

The film did admittedly have its languors, and I'm sure many will not be able to enjoy such a slow and constantly talky film. It is, in a way, more of an intellectual exercise than pure entertainment. I personally think it achieves a pretty nice balance between the two. (In a side-note, the male actor is the spitting image of Homayoun Ershadi. I wonder if Kiarostami chose him because of the resemblance?? But this is too insulting to the actor, who though not up to Binoche's standards does IMO a pretty decent job.)

Poetry (South Korea, 2010, 139 min, Lee Changdong)

This film was a sensitive character study of great depth, like Lee Changdong's previous film Secret Sunshine, but Lee Changdong has upped the ante in a satisfying way in his latest film - not by ratcheting up the drama, but by going deeper and more subtle and ambiguous. The result is a film with a very potent aftertaste, made all the stronger by the ambiguity of the 'point' of the film. Some of his past films might be accused of being message films, although deep down I think that is missing the point. This film, it seems to me, makes it clear that the real running thread throughout his films is the examination of the inner world of different kinds of outsiders, how they are marginalized and exploited by society, and how they fight back to make a place for themselves in a harsh world that doesn't accept them.

This is the story of a somewhat out-of-touch, dreamy grandmother whose loopy, childlike wonder at the world around her may or may not be early signs of onset of Alzheimer's. Not sure what to do with her life, she seems to drift aimlessly through life without purpose. On a whim, one day, she joins a poetry class, and gives herself a goal, as if to attempt to accomplish one little thing in her life: write a poem. She lives with her grandson, whose mother fled to another city on some pretext to shirk her responsibilities. The grandmother is underequipped mentally and emotionally to sense the turbulence in her teenage grandson's life and guide him with stern love when he most needs it, instead spoiling him with blind love, which only incurs the son's contempt. As a result, her grandson is a spoiled brat who without adult guidance is obviously growing into an adult who will also follow his own selfish instincts to slink away from responsibility. The inner conflict of this film plays these various forms of cowardice against one another - the grandmother who slinks from confrontation and wants to float through a poetic fantasy version of the real world, the unseen mother who slinks from her motherly duties, and the son whom society has failed and consequently has failed to develop an adequate sense of right and wrong.

Coming from a guy who at one point in the past was the Minister of Culture of his country, I'm somewhat surprised and impressed by the acerbic, righteous anger you sense in his films to be directed at his culture's inherent greed, selfishness, and lack of compassion for others. He shines an inner light in his films not only at the rich inner world of his spat-upon and derided protagonists but at he inner rot of modern life.

Where this and Lee's previous films could be faulted is in the somewhat forced aspect of their narrative, in the obvious thematic conceit, and the moral intent. Some might find his films to be excessively script-driven, lengthy, and verging on monotonous. I could see that criticism being leveled against this film. It will depend on the viewer on which side it falls - whether the merits of the character study outweigh the cinematic limitations. I'm in the camp that feels the film succeeds more than it fails. Lee Changdong is to my mind one of the most authoritative and important voices working in cinema today.

Seven Days in Heaven (Taiwan, 2010, 92 min, Wang Yu-lin, Essay Liu)

The funnest movie about at Taiwanese funeral rites you'll see this year (or ever), this wryly comical film gives an in-depth glimpse into this world that we over in the west will almost certainly never see, doing for Taiwanese rites what Juzo Itami's The Funeral did for Japanese rites. At the same time, it's an examination of how we grieve, and how the sometimes ludicrously excessive religious rituals that are an inextricable part of the fabric of Eastern cultures such as Taiwan - recreated in this film in great detail and with considerable irony - help us grieve and overcome. They provide something solid and tangible in our most difficult moment: the bulwark of a long tradition and ornate mythology.

Ostensibly a drama, the film comes across as a quasi-documentary. It takes place entirely during the week-long grieving period before the loved one can actually be buried, and depicts the astounding variety of rituals that take place during that time, many quite ludicrous and arbitrary. In one of the funniest scenes, the daughter was obliged to be on call all day at the foot of her father's coffin. At certain appointed times determined by the priest in charge, she was instructed to rush to the side of her father's coffin and burst out crying and calling for her father. This happened well over a dozen times. By the end of the day, exhausted from the strain of pretending to cry, she's peacefully dozing off at the foot of the coffin when a shout from the priest spurs her into one last groggy bawl.

During the rituals, the deceased's daughter seems forced to live in a strange headspace somewhere between earnest grief and mock grief-acting. You can sense that as much good as it's doing it also must also play havoc with your emotions. You begin to wonder what is real grieving and what is forced out of you. Only at the end of the film, after the rituals have come to a close, do we see a scene in which the daughter seems to be crying real tears, as if, having finished her duties, all the genuine grief that didn't have a chance to come out during the ritual finally bubbled to the surface.

The film is also full of fascinating characters. The young cousin, a hip and connected kid from the big city, seems in it mainly for the fun of it rather than because he actually is emotionally affected by the death of an uncle he hardly knew. He sees the whole thing as a fascinating subject for a school project, and during his stay forges a close bond with the priest, a distant uncle. The latter is himself a fascinating and fun character - part-time priest, full-time chain-smoker and playboy.

The priest's wife is also employed in the same business. One of her duties is professional cryer. She's the star of the first day of the ritual. She knows how to put on a show. She hams it up to give the family their money's worth, crawling on her hands and knees, wailing in agony behind the funerary car carrying the father's body. When it's over she gets up and asks, "Who do I cry for next?" Because, you see, to be more efficient they have a whole bunch of them all booked on the same day one after another.

One of the obvious societal purposes of these rituals, and probably the only reason they still exist today, is that they serve the very real role of bringing family together and reinforcing social ties among those left behind. The death of the head of the household shakes the bonds that tie the family together, and their experience over the seven days of 'grieving' for him brings everyone closer together. We see this clearly happening in this entertaining and insightful film.

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